A New York judge has issued a writ of habeas corpus in a case involving two chimpanzees being held at a biomedical research facility, a decision that animal rights activists have hailed as the first time chimps have been afforded the status of legal “persons”.
Habeas corpus, which governs against unlawful detention, has before now been applied only to humans.
The two chimpanzees in question, Hercules and Leo, currently reside at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where they have reportedly been used by scientists studying the evolution of human bipedalism. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the animal rights group, first filed a lawsuit on their behalf in 2013, demanding they be relocated to a sanctuary in Florida.
The case was dismissed by a county court, but the NhRP has continued to appeal, and on Monday Judge Barbara Jaffe – of the New York state Supreme Court – granted the group its first significant legal victory, issuing the habeas corpus writ and summoning Stony Brook’s lawyers to appear at a hearing to argue for the chimps’ continued detention. Habeas corpus requires the authorities – in this case, the university – to prove the legality of a person’s imprisonment.
10 best zoos in the UK
10 best zoos in the UK
1/10 Marwell Zoo
This 140-acre park near Winchester is home to hundreds of exotic and endangered species, ranging from ring-tailed coatis to majestic giraffes, endangered tigers to frilled lizards, curious meerkats to pygmy hippos all set in beautiful, landscaped surroundings. This summer the zoo is opening Wild Explorers, their biggest exhibit to date, hosting some of Africa’s most spectacular wildlife. Online adults £17.26; child £13.62. Under 3s go free. www.marwell.org.uk
2/10 Paignton Zoo
This leafy, shady gem of a zoo was one of the first places in the UK to combine zoological and botanical gardens. It now boasts around 2,000 animals and 1,600 plant species, making for a wonderful place to explore, plus it's been leading the zoo world in ethical trading for years. Watch out for the new male lion Lucifer. Online adults £16.50; child £12. Under 3s go free. www.paigntonzoo.org.uk
3/10 Bristol Zoo
Though this zoo may be a modest 12 acres, it is home to over 450 species. What’s more, being one of the smaller zoos of the world, they’ve been forced to use their space cleverly and efficiently. The new gorilla house, for instance, is an award-winning enclosure, with a glass-roofed viewing area that you can walk over – a world first. New for 2015 are 13 huge and incredibly life-like animatronic Big Bugs, that will make the zoo their home for six months this summer. Online adult £14.53; child £9.09. Under 2s go free. www.bristolzoo.org.uk
4/10 Chester Zoo
This is the most visited zoo in the UK and rated among the top 15 zoos in the world. There’s an impressive 12,0000 animals from over 400 species, as well as a particularly exciting £30m project underway that will take visitors on a personal conservation expedition through the Philippines, Bali, Sulawesi, Sumb and Sumatra, just like the great explorers. Online child £14.72; child £11.86. Under 3s go free. www.chesterzoo.org
5/10 Howlett’s Wild Animal Park
Howlett’s, which was initially set up as a private zoo and is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, made news for unfortunate reasons back in the 90s – the keeper was eaten by a tiger. Even though you can still have close encounters with the big cats, they’re thankfully not that close, and there are lots of other amazing animals in this fabulous, natural-looking 90-acre park too. Online adult £19.95; child £15.95. Under 3s go free. www.aspinallfoundation.org/howletts
6/10 ZSL London Zoo
This is the world’s oldest scientific zoo and currently home to more than 750 different species. Having opened the world’s first aquarium, reptile house and insect house, innovation is still high on its agenda and whilst last year witnessed a brand new Pygmy hippo exhibit, this year’s exciting news is the new ‘In with the Lemurs’ exhibit, which opens on Saturday 28 March. Online adult £21.81; child £15.91. Under 3s go free. www.zsl.org
7/10 Whipsnade Zoo
The UK’s largest zoo is set in a beautiful 600 acres, featuring over 2,500 animals, many of which are jumbo size, such as the elephants, rhinos, tigers, African lions, brown bears, zebras, moose and hippos. It’s also got the UK’s largest herd of Asian elephants, which you can watch getting taken for a stroll around the zoo most afternoons. Don’t miss out on the steam railway, which offers great views of many of the animals. Online adult £25; child £18. Under 3s go free. www.zsl.org/zsl-whipsnade-zoo
8/10 Edinburgh Zoo
This 82 acre zoo is the only zoo in the UK to care for giant pandas and koalas. Other animal highlights include a young baby chimp in their award winning Budongo Trail enclosure, a baby tapir, Indian rhinos, sun bears and a famous daily penguin parade. From April 3 to November 1 the zoo has the added bonus of a life-size animatronic exhibition of dinosaurs – Dinosaurs Return! Online adult £17.00; child £12.50 Under 3s go free www.edinburghzoo.org.uk
9/10 Welsh Mountain Zoo
Some TripAdvisor reviewers complain about the hills. But the zoo’s name should be a bit of a giveaway that it’s not flat. Yes, you’ll be tired, but there’s so much that make it worth it, including an amazing sea lion show, the macaws flying around you, and animals including snow leopards, tigers, otters, lemurs and bears. The keepers are keen to answer questions. Online adult £10.95; child £8.25. Under 3s go free. www.welshmountainzoo.org
10/10 Colchester Zoo
This delightful zoo with over 270 species in 60 acres is particularly child-friendly, with lots of hands on experiences and over 50 daily displays, as well as four adventure play areas and an undercover soft play area. It stays fresh by continually expanding and kids will love the Madagascar Express road train. Online adult £21.99; child £14.99. Under 3s go free www.colchesterzoo.org
Depending on the outcome of that hearing, set for 6 May, the ruling could result in the chimps being freed, offering the possibility of release to countless other research animals. The NhRP, which says it intends to use the decision as a precedent, purports to be “the only organisation working toward actual legal rights for members of species other than our own”.
The NhRP’s mission, according to its website, is “to change the common law status of at least some non-human animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons’.” In its original legal brief on the case, the organisation explained: “Person is not a synonym for ‘human being’, but designates an entity with the capacity for legal rights.”
The group argues that New York state has previously expanded the definition of legal personhood to include, for example, corporations or pets named in their owners’ wills. Hercules and Leo’s case began as one of several lawsuits filed by the NhRP in December 2013, on behalf of the Stony Brook primates, as well as two other chimps being held privately, Kiko and Tommy. Tommy is a 26-year-old former circus performer who lives on a trailer park in upstate New York.
The NhRP characterises the lawsuits not as animal welfare cases, but as animal rights cases. The chimps’ owners are not accused of any abuse, but the campaign group argues that the animals are too intelligent and emotionally complex to be held in captivity, and should instead be transferred to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida. The sanctuary, composed of 13 artificial islands on a lake, is home to about 250 chimpanzees and is, according to the NhRP, “an environment as close to that of their natural home in Africa as can be found in North America”.
The group has said it intends to fight similar legal battles on behalf of other intelligent animals including elephants, dolphins, orcas and other great apes. “This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals,” Natalie Prosin, executive director of the NhRP, told Science magazine. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”
Yet some legal experts warn that the implications of Judge Jaffe’s ruling should not be overstated. Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in California, who opposes personhood for animals, told the magazine, “The judge may merely want more information to make a decision on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth.
“It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side’s arguments.”
UPDATE: The court order issued in the case regarding two chimpanzees was in fact amended, and the words “writ of habeas corpus” removed. While a hearing will still be held on whether the chimps, Hercules and Leo, should remain at a research facility at Stony Brook University in New York, this means the court has so far made no decision on whether they ought to be treated as legal “persons”. The hearing has been moved from 6 May to 27 May.
The NhRP said in a statement, “This case is one of a trio of cases that the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought in an attempt to free chimpanzees imprisoned within the State of New York through an ‘Article 70-Habeas Corpus’ proceeding. These cases are novel and this is the first time that an Order to Show Cause has issued. We are grateful for an opportunity to litigate the issue of the freedom of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, at the ordered May hearing.”
A spokesperson for Stony Brook said in an email, “The University does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court’s full consideration on this matter.”